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AMU Criminal Justice Student Creates Documentary to Change Police Empathy

By Melanie Conner, Alumni Relations Outreach Liaison at American Military University

April 22 was a big day for Burke Brownfeld. The feature-length documentary he’s been consulting on for three years premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The documentary, Charm City, took viewers into some of the toughest neighborhoods in Baltimore during a three-year period of violence and ongoing conflicts with law enforcement. Brownfeld was a consulting producer on the documentary, advising the producer and director on policing matters as well as providing feedback on law enforcement issues covered in the film.

April 22 was also the day Brownfeld completed his capstone course, earning his master of arts in criminal justice from American Military University. Brownfeld’s graduate thesis focused on policing systems in various nations. “There are many approaches to policing around the globe,” said Brownfeld. The United States has what would be considered a highly decentralized style of policing with almost 18,000 individual police departments.”

He added, “By contrast, many western and northern European nations have just one national police agency. Part of the goal behind the thesis was to examine these different approaches, in order to see if there are learning opportunities from some of these different approaches to police work.”

Brownfeld has had a long-term passion for learning about and working to improve law enforcement on both a national and global scale.  He was a police officer in Alexandria, Virginia from 2004 to 2010. In 2010, he took a position with the federal government to oversee security for the U.S. Peace Corps in South America and the Caribbean.

Charm City Focuses on Issues of Police-Community Relations

Three years ago, around the time of major media attention involving police activity in Ferguson, Missouri and in New York after the death of Eric Garner, the nation was filled with tension around the topic of police and community relations. Brownfeld decided to take action.

“The reason I felt so motivated to get involved was that I was frustrated with the way the national news media outlets were portraying police issues,” he said. “It felt very much like we were all expected to choose a side. We should either be pro-police or anti-police. It made me feel uncomfortable because like most conflicts, there is almost always a complex web of challenges beyond the surface of an issue.”

Brownfeld started his crusade by writing letters to the editor and sending them to local Alexandria publications, the Washington Times and the Baltimore Sun. He also submitted articles about police issues. But he felt his efforts were not having an impact. Wanting to attract meaningful progress, Brownfeld decided he wanted to film a documentary to highlight Baltimore’s police and community relationships.

[Related: Baltimore Riots and the True Costs of Poor Community Relations]

“I was inspired to take a deep dive on the topic of police/community relations, and I thought that a documentary would be a great medium for this,” he said. “I felt that all sides of the issue could benefit from seeing a film that gave respect to the different voices and viewpoints as a means of building empathy.”

Brownfeld connected with Big Mouth Productions in New York. As a result, a shared vision became a feature-length documentary.

Collaboration with Big Mouth Productions

Brownfeld collaborated with award-winning filmmaker Marilyn Hess, who directed Charm City. Hess has won two Emmys, a Peabody Award and the DuPont Award.

Hess and her business partner, Katy Chevigny, who form Big Mouth Productions, are passionate about making films connected to a cause. Brownfeld hopes that the film will gain national distribution and lead to his next project: establishing a national-level police training program.

How the Film Can Improve Policing

Now that the film is done, Brownfeld looks forward to the “effect” phase. He says his goal is to find ways the film can help improve police and community relationships.

He is also working to develop training materials in parallel with the film as a tool to help officers explore the role of empathy in police work.

“I am proud of my time as a police officer, and I want to do what I can to contribute to the profession of policing and to help law enforcement in our country be the best version of itself that it can be,” he said.

“I have always believed that policing, at its core, is the ultimate public service opportunity. But it’s a tough job, and sometimes things can get off track. We, as a profession, must constantly strive to learn, adapt, and improve.”

About the Author: Melanie Conner is an Alumni Relations Outreach Liaison and Alumni Relations Coordinator who has worked at APUS since 2011. Previously, she was an English teacher at Piedmont Christian School. Melanie holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Mary Washington. To reach her or Brownfeld, please send an email to For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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